On the Temptation of Jesus
Normally after a Baptism we celebrate. We take pictures. We have a meal with family and friends. We eat cake and cupcakes and other assorted sweets. After all, an amazing thing happened, the Word came to the water, made it God’s holy water, and that water clothed another person in Christ.
Maybe that little party is more like a calm before the storm. What we see here in Mark gives us a real picture of Baptism, a reminder of what the baptized faced. And Jesus didn’t deal with anything differently than we do.
We sometimes breathe a deep sigh of relief after a Baptism. “Ah, finally, that’s done.” Not in a sense of, “Good riddance,” but more in the realm of, “Now I’ve got that base covered and we can think of something else.”
I don’t know about you, but I know the time between the birth of my children and the baptism of my children is a time when I think a lot about this gift they’ll receive. Then they receive it, and I feel one-hundred percent better. I relax. I rejoice. Not as if I despaired of my child before Baptism, I know that the Word heard is powerful. I looked forward to the gift my child would soon receive from God. Who wouldn’t be excited about forgiveness, life, and salvation?
Again, it’s that deep sigh of relief, that sense of lowering our guard that follows a Baptism that we have to think about, and eliminate from our thinking. Baptism isn’t the end of anything. It is, in Churchill’s words, the end of the beginning.
Consider Christ. Mark tells us of his Baptism by John in verses 9-11 of chapter one. Then he says, “At once.” Not, “at once they went to Mary’s house for cake,” or “at once Jesus and John took a celebratory selfie,” or anything like that, but, “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert.” “Sent him out is a good way to say it, but you could also say he hurled him out, threw him out, drove him into the desert. This didn’t happen against Jesus’ will. He desired to do all that follows. The Spirit, however, drives the action. What happens is all a part of the divine and triune economy.
The Spirit sends Jesus into the desert to face the devil. He goes with no help or support, with nothing. John already operated in the wilderness; the Spirit sends Jesus away from that into wilder, lonelier, and devil-filled desert. For one purpose: to be tested, tempted, and trapped by the devil.
For forty days straight. Thanks to Matthew and Luke we have in mind three big temptations in the desert. Mark clears up that misconception. For forty days and forty nights the devil rains temptations upon Jesus. We know of three: make bread, worship the devil, tempt God with a big jump. But there were many more, big and little, all trying to derail Jesus from being Jesus, that is, the one who saves his people from their sins.
Jesus got no time to breath, no time to celebrate, no cake and ice cream. He got handed temptations at a most weakened moment, with no food or drink for forty days. God steps into the balance scales for us. The one like us in every way gets tempted like us in every way. The battle commences.
I spoke too strongly before when I said Jesus had nothing with him. He had one thing, the one thing: the Word. “I don’t live on bread,” he told the devil, “but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God.” That Word nourished him against the devil for days on end, that Word which John poured upon Jesus in Baptism clothed him for battle. A battle he won.
How similar to our Baptisms. God exorcises us, removes us from the devil and brings us into his kingdom, cleansed, washed clean, only to be thrown back into a demon-filled, dirty world trying to destroy us, like newly drafted soldiers thrown right into the thick of battle. What a challenge for an infant, what a responsibility for a parent, because it remains ever true: where God plants his church by Baptism, there the devil builds his chapel to tear down and destroy what God has done.
This time in the desert becomes a microcosm of our own life. The devil, seeing us clothed in Christ, wants to tear those clothes away. He is aptly named Satan, adversary. He picks and picks and picks at us, bringing charges, condemning us, asking questions, trying to detach us from Christ. Those questions Paul asks in Romans 8? Those are the devils questions. That list of troubles and hardships? The devil’s tools.
He tries to make our lives like the forty days. He makes them an unimaginable time without any food or drink. And no God. Occasionally he hurls at us the big temptations, the grand slam sins, the ones we think are mortal and unforgiveable. Mostly it’s just the little temptations, the so-called venial sins, the weaknesses, the peccadilloes. And it’s constant. It’s his version of death by a thousand cuts. Sometimes it’s the thing of a moment; sometimes it’s the stuff of a lifetime.
His successes are unnerving. More, damning. We just heard in John 8 how each sin makes us a slave to that sin, and slavery to sin means the setting up of a new god, bowing down and worshiping the devil. How quickly the devil gets us to strip off our baptismal garments. Without them we’re worse than naked. Without them, God sees us as we are. And that’s no good.
Which is why Jesus’ first sermon, and every sermon thereafter had as its theme: “Repent!” Stop, turn around, change, become different. But here too the devil gets us. The devil drives us into despair, “I can’t ever repent enough,” or “God doesn’t hear this,” or, the devil makes us take credit for repentance, to put it into the ledger on our side of the balance, “I’m terribly sorry. See, I said I’m sorry,” as if my tears turn the tide, my sorrowing stops hell fire.
What a crafty adversary. Because now he can ask those questions: “Who condemns? Who will bring charges?” And on my own I can’t know the answers for sure. If my sacrifices and offerings and sorrows are my mighty fortress, then I’m sunk, for I’ve separated myself from God and his grace; I’ve stopped believing in God and started believing in me.
Jesus’ sermon didn’t stop with repent. It wasn’t all about you. “Believe the good news.” There is one who fulfills all righteousness. Remember, Jesus didn’t get baptized because of his sins, but because of yours. This is why we sing, “I trust, o Christ, in you alone,” because of Thomas a’ Kempis’ majestic repetitions in his hymn, “for us…for us…for us.” Here is the love so deep, so broad, so high, a love that crushed every pitch the devil threw at him, a love that didn’t just actively provide a wall of obedience for us, a mighty fortress of deeds done in which our Baptisms cloth us, but a love that went all the way for us: for us he died, for us he rose, for us he went on high to reign, so that we can “plead the grace your death bestowed.”
For the time has come. Jesus said that too. Having been tested, Jesus met all necessary requirements. Like us in every way, as Hebrews says, yet without sin. Now our faithful high priest, sacrificer and sacrifice, who can sympathize with our temptations, who gives us the promise: “For you. Everything I do, I do it, I did it, for you.”
Repent and believe the good news. “Repent” convicts us, but “believe” consoles, for “believe” points us outside of ourselves. Yes, we do, as the Smalcald Articles say, “become different” and “act differently,” but we also “believe My promise,” that is the promise of God, the God who spoke his mighty words in this desert, the God who struck down Satan so that he falls like lightning.
This same God casts us out into the wilderness, but not alone, naked, unclothed, or without food. We are not alone, for he promises his presence, and the ministering comforts of the same angels he sent to Jesus.
While the devil might try to convince you that you’re wearing the emperor’s new clothes, God’s promise stands sure: everyone baptized in Christ he clothes in Christ; he has, as Paul said earlier in Romans 8, made Jesus the firstborn among many brothers, and in God’s water, God makes you not just a brother of Jesus, but says you die and rise with him. You’re a miracle, clothed in Jesus.
You have the same food Jesus had: the very words that come from the mouth of God. You need never listen to the devil again. In your catechism you learned a summary of God’s will, a definition of God himself, what words to say to God, and how God brings you his love: Commandments, Creed, our Father, and the Sacraments. That is, you have God’s promise, wrapped upon you and around you: that he helps you free from every need, that the valiant one fought and fights for you, and that this world’s prince, scowling fiercely as he will, can harm you none, he’s judged, the deed is done.
Ah, the good news. Jesus crushed the devil. Jesus crushed death. Jesus brings life and pleasures eternal. For us. For you. Don’t let the devil ever say anything different. Amen.